A Week to Remember: Oliver Sacks | Los Angeles Public Library

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A Week to Remember: Oliver Sacks

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Collage of books by neurologist and author Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks was born on July 9, 1933. Sacks was a neurologist and author whose case studies of patients with unusual disorders became best-sellers. His focus on patients with particularly rare or dramatic problems made his work popular with writers in other forms, and his case studies were adapted into several different movies and an opera.

Sacks's interest in science began when he was a child, studying chemistry with an uncle who worked at a lightbulb factory. He studied biology and physiology at Queen's College, Oxford, before entering medical school in 1956. He did his internship in British hospitals, then moved to the United States, where he completed his training in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Sacks joined the faculty of the Yeshiva University College of Medicine in 1966 and shortly thereafter began writing about his more unusual cases. He burned the first book he wrote, doubting that it was worth publishing. The first book he thought was worthy of publication, Migraine (e-book | print), was published in 1970 and used case studies to look at the history and treatment of migraine headaches.

His next book, Awakenings (e-book | print), broke through to a larger audience beyond the medical community. In it, Sacks reported on his use of an experimental drug to help patients who had been mostly speechless and motionless for many years as a result of a 1920s encephalitis epidemic. In 1990, Awakenings was adapted as a movie, starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.

Awakenings was the most successful film adaptation of Sacks' work, but it was not the last. The essays in 1995's An Anthropologist on Mars (e-book | print) inspired two movies – At First Sight, about a blind man whose sight is restored by surgery; and The Music Never Stopped, in which a man loses the ability to form new memories and can remember nothing that has happened to him since the late 1960s. In 1986, the adaptations went beyond film, when Michael Nyman wrote a chamber opera based on the title case study from The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (e-audio | print), about a patient with prosopagnosia, the inability to distinguish one face from another.

Several of Sacks's collections of case studies are built around a common theme. Seeing Voices (e-book | print) looks at issues involving the Deaf community; Musicophilia (e-book | e-audio | print) focuses on patients whose disorders are related to music; and Hallucinations (e-book | e-audio | print | audio) explores not only visions caused by medical conditions, but altered states that are deliberately induced by drugs.

Sacks didn't very often depart from his medical writing, but he did write Oaxaca Journal (e-book | print), a travelogue of his trip to southern Mexico, and two volumes of memoirs, Uncle Tungsten (e-book | print) and On the Move (e-book | e-audio | print | audio). The final book he prepared before his death in 2015 was The River of Consciousness (e-book | e-audio | print), a gathering of essays previously published in a variety of other places.

Also This Week

July 10, 1553

The 17-year-old Lady Jane Grey was crowned Queen of England, a title she held for only nine days. Jane was a cousin of her predecessor on the throne, Edward VI, but not the closest heir to the throne; Edward had two half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth. Jane, like Edward, was Protestant, and Mary and Elizabeth were Catholic, so in his will, Edward declared his sisters to be illegitimate and thus ineligible to the throne. Public sentiment was with Mary, though, and the Privy Council of advisors to the monarchy quickly abandoned Jane, declaring Mary to be the rightful Queen on July 19. Jane was convicted of treason for having signed documents as "Jane the Quene" during her brief reign, and beheaded on February 12, 1554. In Lady Jane Grey (e-book | print), Eric Ives tells the story of her short rule.

July 8, 1908

Louis Jordan was born. Jordan was a singer, songwriter, and bandleader who was most popular in the 1940s. He was one of the most popular "jump blues" musicians, playing a mix of blues and boogie-woogie that was a precursor to the R&B and rock'n'roll of the 1950s. He was known as the "King of the Jukebox," and made several "soundies," short films that played on video jukeboxes in the 1940s and anticipated the later importance of music videos. Jordan's hits included "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens," "Caldonia," and "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby." A variety of Jordan's music is available for streaming at Hoopla and Freegal.

July 14, 1918

Ingmar Bergman was born. Bergman was a Swedish director who made almost fifty movies in his sixty-year career, and was considered one of the most important directors of his era. His 1972 movie Cries and Whispers is one of the few non-English language films to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Three of Bergman's movies won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, including 1960's The Virgin Spring, a tale of revenge set in medieval Sweden. The Virgin Spring is available for streaming at Kanopy.

July 8, 1960

Francis Gary Powers was charged with espionage against the Soviet Union. He was a CIA pilot, taking photographs of military installations from a U-2 plane which was shot down by a Soviet missile. Powers was convicted and spent 17 months in a Soviet prison before returning to the United States as part of a prisoner swap in 1962. Powers was working as a traffic reporter for a Los Angeles television station in 1977, when his helicopter ran out of fuel and he was killed in the crash. Michael Beschloss draws on CIA documents, private letters, and the news coverage of the era to report the full story of the U-2 affair in Mayday (e-book | print).